Decline and fall. Credit: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty

July 17, 2021   15 mins

If you have used social media in the past five years or so, it is more likely than not that you will have come across a meme, emerging from somewhere within the collective consciousness of the online right-wing, which purports to illustrate the cycle by which civilisations rise and fall. Overlaid on neoclassical paintings of a great civilisation rising from barbarity to splendour, then plunging into decadence and collapse, the text proclaims that “Hard times create strong men; strong men create good times; good times create weak men; weak men create hard times.” This text, whether offered earnestly or in one of its many parodies, represents what is surely the most widely-diffused theoretical insight derived from medieval Islamic political philosophy: the “Khaldunian cycle”. named after the great Arab statesman and polymath Ibn Khaldun.

In Ibn Khaldun’s gloomy reading of the societies in which he lived and governed as an itinerant advisor to kings and sultans, an iron law governed the lifecycle of empires. Nomadic cultures like the Bedouin, hardened by the harsh facts of existence in the inhospitable desert, evolve a close cultural solidarity or group feeling— asabiyya— providing them with an evolutionary advantage over the soft and decadent cultures of the cities. When urban civilisations buckle under the weight of their own softness, the hardened warriors of the periphery rush in, to impose their rule and establish new empires from the wreckage. Yet over time — for Ibn Khaldun, the lifecycle of an empire is a mere four generations — the lures of urban life weaken the new dynasty, which adopts the decadent ways of the conquered peoples and thus is conquered in turn by the still-vigorous nomads of the fringes.

It is these few passages in the theoretical introduction or Muqaddima to his universal history which have most excited intellectual attention in the centuries since his death of plague in medieval Cairo. While his economic theories have occasionally been revived (so that Ronald Reagan could cite him in a speech as the discoverer of the Laffer Curve, and the philosopher Ernest Gellner could portray him as a proto-Keynesian), it is not his lifelong focus on Islamic jurisprudence that spurs modern enthusiasm, nor his interest in the occult or his ranking of the moral and intellectual capacity of various races, but his strangely modern-seeming analysis of the nature of the state and of statecraft from first principles, which has so struck social scientists with his seeming relevance.

No wonder then, that Arnold Toynbee, when writing his own epic cycle of the rise and fall of civilisations, could claim that the Muqaddima is “undoubtedly the greatest work of its kind that has ever been created by any mind in any time or place,” or that Gellner strove to develop Ibn Khaldun’s insights into a general theory of Islamic civilisation, drawing on the work of what he termed as “a superb inductive sociologist, a practitioner, long before the term was invented, of the method of ideal types.” For Gellner, the story of the Middle East is that of the survival of the “Khaldunian formula” for most of its population, with the result that “political conflict within the state apparatus, even when nominally ideological, is generally a matter of the rivalry of patronage networks, often with a regional or quasi-communal base… Strong religion, strong state, weak civil society, and the fragile asabiyya of quasi-kin, quasi-territorial patronage: that seems to be the heritage.”

The great Lebanese-British historian Albert Hourani’s epic, History of the Arab Peoples, opens with a four-page summary of Ibn Khaldun’s life and works, as the embodiment of Arab civilisation at its greatest cultural and political extent. The Middle Eastern states of today all tend to fit the pattern, Hourani later noted, of being “formed by a warlord, a military leader, or elites gathering around themselves elements drawn from the countryside and given a new kind of asabiyya, that of men following a leader toward the seizure of power”. Even T.E Lawrence’s Arab Revolt, Hourani argues, fits the Khaldunian mould, as “a conquering army was formed out of tribal elements, infused with a new kind of solidarity, and launched to conquer a chain of towns on its way toward a capital, Damascus”. The fifteenth-century polymath may have been deeply — too deeply, for his own comfort — enmeshed in the volatile politics of his age, but he is also a writer for our own time. 

It is precisely to rescue Ibn Khaldun from what he sees as “the delusive appearance of modernity” that the Orientalist scholar Robert Irwin’s recent “intellectual biography” seeks to situate the Arab polymath in the context of his own era. As Irwin notes, while American scholars in particular tend to view a Khaldunian framing of the contemporary Middle East as a pernicious form of Orientalism, “the study of Ibn Khaldun has, if anything, intensified in the post-colonial period. In part this may be because of the hunger of political scientists, sociologists, anthropologists, ethnologists, and economists to find an intellectual ancestor or precursor for what they practice. This sort of ancestor worship has its dangers and the keenness of modern Western Christian or secular thinkers to legitimate their thinking by drawing on the writings of a strict Muslim who lived in the fourteenth century is most curious. Awarding him a gold star for modernity is odd.”

Seeking to dislodge Ibn Khaldun as the father of modern sociology, Irwin emphasises that, rather than claiming any great generalisability for his theories, there is little basis in his voluminous writings “for a cyclical theory of history based on a skewed reading of the fortunes of selected Arab and Berber tribes in the Maghreb” which can be applied outside the specific context of medieval Northwest Africa: “he made an exception of the more urbanized and heavily settled Muslim territories in the eastern Islamic lands and in Andalusia. In the ‘Ibar [the universal history of which the Muqaddima was the prologue] he also noted that the Mamluk regime in Egypt and Syria constituted a special case.” 

Yet I would argue there is a danger, in this iconoclastic reframing of Ibn Khaldun’s work, of losing much of theoretical value — how well, for example, would Ibn Khaldun’s insights map onto the tragedy of modern Syria? It will not be a revelation to many that Syria, which like neighboring Iraq is a country with a post-independence tradition of bloody and volatile political conflict, is also a nation of great ethnic, religious and social diversity: it is the relationship between these two facts that is recently controversial in Western discourse. Consider that back in 2006, then-senator Joe Biden proposed to divide Iraq along ethnic lines to dampen the country’s bloodshed; for the Biden administration of 2021, such a concept would surely be heretical: if anything, Iraq’s extreme diversity ought to be a source of strength. For many, then, it is no wonder that Syria, like Iraq, proves the validity of Ibn Khaldun’s contention that “in the lands which are inhabited by a multitude of tribes it is difficult to establish a state”.

After all, in 1985, long before the current war began, the theorist of ethnic conflict Donald L. Horowitz observed that while “in post-war Syria, ethnicity was not the major political cleavage”, as “ethnic affiliation became the servant of ideological, organizational, and personal rivalries”, over time “ethnicity itself became the struggle.”. Sadly for Syria, time has not seen this interpretation fade into irrelevance. Perhaps it is no wonder that Syrian writers are so ready to use a Khaldunian framing in discussing their country’s fractures, even as Western observers tend to shy from his pessimistic implications.

In her recent book, Building for Hope, the Homsi architect and writer Marwa al-Sabouni — a friend and colleague of the late Sir Roger Scruton — deploys a Khaldunian mode of differentiation between the life of the city and its urban population, and the envies and indignities of the rural poor in accelerating the conflict’s outbreak. It typifies her country in a manner unfashionable among Western commentators as a land “imbued with the power of vengeance and feud, ready to explode at the slightest spark”. For al-Sabouni, a consciously urbane heir to the Islamic civilisation of the cities at the fringes of the desert, it is only the architectural language of the waqf, the pre-colonial Islamic urban endowment, that can defuse the hungry asabiyya of the provincial poor, exacerbated by Westernisation. 

Even more strikingly, in the excellent recent academic work State and Tribes in Syria, the Syrian political scientist Haian Dukhan adopts an overtly Khaldunian framing for his analysis of the revival of the tribal system in the current conflict, noting that “according to Ibn Khaldun’s cyclical theory, as long as the state is strong, the tribes submit by adapting themselves to their economic and political environment. Once the state becomes weak, it becomes vulnerable to revolution by the tribal people it tried to dominate.” Indeed, as Dukhan notes, the hotbeds of the revolution’s initial phases were precisely those quarters of the cities — Hajar al-Aswad in Damascus, Baba Amr in Homs — where Sunni Arab tribal communities, displaced by drought and food insecurity, had been forced to relocate for work. There they found themselves rubbing up against what they saw as complacent Sunni elites and a newly-prosperous Alawite bourgeoisie.

Even the spark that led to the outbreak of war — the abduction, torture and later murder of schoolboys who dared demonstrate against the Assad regime in Deraa — took place within a tribal framework. As Dukhan recounts, a tribal delegation went to meet with the city’s head of political security, Atef Najeeb, Assad’s cousin, to plead for their return. They placed the headbands of their tribal headgear on his desk, a symbol of their deference and submission, and were outraged when Najeeb threw them in the bin. “Moreover,” Dukhan notes, “he reputedly told the tribal delegation to forget about their children and to go home and have new children and, if they lacked the fertility to do so, that they should send their wives to his office and he would ensure they left pregnant. This was too much for the tribal leaders to accept.” The result, as they say, is history.

The Syrian revolution, and the war which followed it, differed from the Arab Spring revolutions which came before by being a revolt of the peripheries against the centre, a classically Khaldunian mapping of space and class, city and countryside. The course of the war itself, as the political scientist Raymond Hinnebusch notes, “took forms that would have been recognisable to Ibn Khaldun: charismatic leaders professing radical Islamist ideologies and leading armed movements with some bureaucratic capabilities”. Perhaps, without Western intervention, the irruption of the Islamic State’s armies from the tribal wastes of the Syrian and Iraqi deserts into the great cities of Arab civilisation would have led, in time, to the birth of a new dynasty, and its own cycle of degeneracy and collapse in the face of stronger challengers.

Yet it is also worth noting that the Syrian war’s essential dynamics cut across purely ethnic and sectarian divisions, counterbalancing the pure identification of asabiyya with ethnicity or sect that undergirds many Western readings. Assad’s coalition is not only one of ethnic minorities — his own Alawite sect, the various Christian communities, the Druze, which all feared a takeover by rural Sunni brigades edging towards fundamentalism — but one historically composed of an alliance of Sunni Arab social minorities— poor provincial peasants from the Hawran, and tribesmen from distant Deir Ezzor and Hasakah — who at an earlier stage of the Khaldunian cycle provided Baathism with the necessary political heft against the affluent Sunni elites of the cities to seize power.

It’s key here to return to the politics of pre-independence Syria to understand this, perhaps the most Khaldunian of all Syrian framings: under the French Mandate, the colonial authorities found themselves faced with opposition to their rule from the Sunni Arab elites of the four big cities, Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs, who had shifted from their self-identification with the Ottoman ascendancy towards a Syrian nationalism which had little support among either minorities or the rural poor. The nation state model Syrian nationalists had adopted, based on the European example, simply had less meaning — less grounds for asabiyya — for most Syrians than did their prenational identities. To counterbalance their nationalist opponents, the French authorities therefore leaned on the country’s “compact minorities” — the Alawites, the Kurds, and the Druze, huddled together in their rural fastnesses — as the military bedrock of their rule, establishing regiments of ethnic minority colonial troops and autonomous regional administrations set against the Sunni Arab majority.  

To many historians of modern Syria, it is this policy of divide and rule which set the stage for Syria’s post-independence ethnic and sectarian rivalries, though this is surely an overreach: the French did not create these divisions, even if their administration exacerbated them. Yet it is the position of Assad’s Alawite sect in particular that lends itself most elegantly towards a Khaldunian reading of modern Syria. A provincial rural underclass, despised for their heretical ways, and subject to absentee Sunni Arab landlords, the Alawites took to soldiering as a means to escape their grinding poverty and preserve their autonomy, to the extent that by independence, 65% of the non-commissioned officers in the Syrian armed forces were drawn from a minority which made up less than 10% of the country’s population.

The great Palestinian Marxist historian Hanna Batatu, in his 1981 essay, Some Observations on the Social Roots of Syria’s Ruling, Military Group and the Causes for Its Dominance, and his later masterwork, Syria’s Peasantry, the Descendants of its Lesser Rural Rotables, and Their Politics, adopted a Khaldunian framing for the Alawite capture of the Baathist state while abjuring a purely sectarian reading, and explicitly rejecting placing the blame at France’s colonial hands. For Batatu, the Alawites, just like Khaldun’s Bedouin, were naturally inclined towards soldiering from the poverty of their upbringing and the asabiyya engendered by their dismal situation. The poorest of Syria’s rural poor, they could not afford to buy themselves out of military service like the country’s more affluent Sunnis and Christians, who viewed the armed forces as a disgraceful career, were inclined to.

Over time, they would come to dominate the junior ranks of the officer corps; and over time, the spread of Baathist ideology among the country’s junior officers of peasant background — Alawite, Kurdish, provincial Sunni Arab and Druze — would see the country fall under the military rule of the sons of the periphery, a process Batatu discerned in a Marxian rather than narrowly ethnic or sectarian Khaldunian cycle: “rural people, driven by economic distress or lack of security, move into the main cities, settle in the outlying districts, enter before long into relations or forge common links with elements of the urban poor, who are themselves often earlier migrants from the countryside, and together they challenge the old established classes”.

Yet, as a result of the internal politics of the Baath movement, ethnic considerations would soon become paramount. As Horowitz notes, “the ethnic history of the post-war period is the story of how some of these groups, powerful in the army, gradually displaced the Sunni civilian political elite and were themselves eliminated from military leadership, one at a time: first the Kurds, then the Sunni, and then the Druze, until only the Alawi remained”. The almost total dominance of the Alawite minority in the units of the Syrian armed forces devoted to ensuring the preservation of the Assad dynasty against any internal challengers has been noted for 40 years. The Khaldunian cycle seemed to have been proved: the impoverished tribesmen of the periphery, held together by the asabiyya of their despised sect, had seized power from the complacent and divided Sunni majority of the urban centre, establishing a form of rule dependent on clan and family alliances against the entire rest of the country. 

For the eminent Syrian historian Bassam Tibi, a scion of the old Damascus Sunni aristocracy, writing in 1991, the result was a pure example of Khaldunian dynamics: “In the case of [Assad’s] Alawite tribe of al-Matawira we are dealing with a tribal community whose kinsmen have advanced to the ruling political elite
 When subethnic tribes like the Alawite Matawira in Syria are capable of obtaining control of the state, not only do underdogs become topdogs but they also instrumentalise their prenational tribal ties to maintain their control.” And yet, as he warned two decades before the war’s outbreak, “a coercive Alawite state structured along the lines of patron-client relations is not a strong state, the sustained political stability of the regime notwithstanding”.

This seems a case of the Khaldunian cycle in action, and yet there are complexities which mitigate against such a purist reading. Most historians of modern Syria view the total Alawite military ascendancy as the product of the Muslim Brotherhood’s abortive uprising against an Alawite regime they framed in overtly sectarian terms as unbelievers, losing them popular support and uniting a previously fissiparous Alawite military caste around an Assad regime whose survival they now saw as intertwined with their own. Where Assad pĂ©re had previously depended on an alliance with provincial Sunni factions to maintain his regime, Alawite hegemony became entrenched by the Sunni Islamist revival of sectarian dynamics: asabiyya was thus engendered from without, rather than erupting from within.

With the bloody crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Fighting Vanguard in Aleppo and Hama, the Assad regime withdrew into a narrow, kin-based system for its own survival, a circle of trust bound by the asabiyya of sect, ethnicity and family. Only the death of Hafez and the ascent to power of his younger son Bashar saw the creation of a new social system, based on capitalist consumption and modernisation, and devoid of overt sectarian sympathies, exemplified by Bashar’s marriage to a prominent daughter of Syria’s urban Sunni middle class, his British-educated, and Vogue-celebrated wife Asma. It was, as the anthropologist Lisa Wedeen observes, a “combination of name-brand chic with a longtime, largely Sunni-bourgeois sense of urbane decorum, compensating for the regime’s parvenu origins in the hinterland”, which we could associate with the downward, decadent phase of the Khaldunian cycle. 

Yet the outbreak of the revolution in 2011, and the war in 2012, seemed to herald a revival of asabiyya as an organising principle: for the Alawites, as Hinnebusch notes, as to a lesser extent with the Christians and Druze, “implicated in regime crimes, suffering high casualties, facing existential threat if the government collapsed, it had no viable option to defect, even though there was a lot of resentment at the regime for its failure to defend the community and a growing unwillingness to fight outside Alawi areas”. The worst crimes of the war’s initial phases, like the brutal slaughter by the Turkish Alawite commander Mihrac Ural of Sunni families in Baniyas, an area where Sunni and Alawite communities rubbed up against each other in competition driven by demographic change, helped drive the rival communities into the arms of their own asabiyya against each other. Just as the rise of the Assad family represented the victory of Alawite asabiyya against the elites of the cities, so could the revolt of the provincial Sunnis of the agricultural hinterland be interpreted as a new turning of the Khaldunian wheel, as the cycle of corruption, decadence and oppressive governance which bedevils dynasties afflicted the Assads in turn.

Yet we should remember, still, to view the conflict in class as much or more than ethnic or sectarian terms. As has been the case since independence, the Sunni community was divided by class and geography rather than united by sectarian asabiyya. Affluent urban Sunnis remained for the most part steadfast in support for their notionally non-sectarian governing regime against the uprising of their rural co-religionists and the new Sunni underclass which had sprung up on the outskirts of the big cities. In this, we can say the process was more Khaldunian than the Ibn Khaldun we have come to recognise in Western discourse. Ibn Khaldun was explicit, as many of his Western adopters have not been, that asabiyya is as much a product of shared existence as it is of shared blood; indeed, in his insistence that tribal (and thus ethnic) genealogies are largely fictive, and that what we might now term class solidarities are of equal importance, Ibn Khaldun in some ways comes closer to the worldview of the analysts who reject him, than of the popularisers who claim him for their own.

Where then, does this leave the Khaldunian cycle in understanding the nature of social and political conflict? Much of the recent revival of Khaldun’s writing can be seen within the context of Middle Eastern and Muslim intellectuals searching for a perspective on their own predicament from outside Western ideological precepts; yet equally, the alt-right meme with which this essay opened speaks to Western conservative fears that the cultures of the West have become soft and decadent, and are ripe for takeover, like the great cities of the pre-Islamic and Medieval Middle East, by hungry masses possessed of a greater sense of solidarity and common purpose. His pessimistic narrative of cyclical decline is, likewise, a rejoinder to the guiding liberal myth of ever-upward progress. But perhaps a far broader point can be made. 

Since the Second World War, a myth — perhaps one of the founding myths of postwar liberalism — has evolved to dominance, which asserts that individual feeling and morality predominates in the modern world, and group feeling, or asabiyya, is merely a relic of the past. It is a myth that skews our understanding of the rest of the world, as much as it does of our own societies. Within the context of the Syrian war, as Hinnebusch notes, it has led us into an intellectual cul-de-sac where “much of the analysis of the Syrian conflict is afflicted by ‘presentism’ and an over-stress on agency — usually framed as the ‘good guys’ (peaceful protestors) versus the ‘bad guys’ (the dictator, jihadists),” instead of the rivalrous interaction of social groups — whether ethnic, sectarian, or class-based — driven by the “path-dependency” of their respective histories.

In the popular liberal worldview, man is essentially a rational, moral creature, and wars, when they break out, are the product of enchantment by a Hitler-like Pied Piper figure, driving the deluded masses into the abyss from some deep, essentially evil motivation. It is Carlyle’s Great Man Theory of History inverted: an Evil Man Theory of History, a moral narrative as simplistic as that of any Ladybird history book which has clouded the Western political imagination, at least in its vulgar journalistic incarnation, since the Second World War. Instead, as Hinnebusch observes, the discipline of Historical Sociology, and by extension the amoral, group-based political science of Ibn Khaldun, “warns us that history matters: specifically, the historical evolution of structures sharply constrains the options of agents that tend to reproduce power practices that have historically “worked”’.

We are not forced into conflict by ethnic or social difference, (though such differences may greatly accelerate the path to war), but when conflicts break out, historic social ties shape the choices actors make, whether they will it or not. Yet ethnic conflicts, especially, from the fall of Yugoslavia to the current war in Ethiopia, are repeatedly forced into a framework of good versus evil by Western commentators to make them explicable in ideological terms, skewing the policy response. In Iraq and Libya, intervening Western idealists decapitate tribal or sectarian despots, and throw their hands up in perplexity when smooth-functioning liberal democracies don’t spring, fully-formed, from their blood, as if dictators are the cause of a fractured society’s dysfunction, and not merely a morbid symptom. None of the underlying causes of the conflict have been addressed in any way: external intervention has simply flipped around the antagonists’ fortunes.

A conflict’s shape is not formed by the psychological makeup of one evil man, but instead social dynamics form the structures of power that delineate the paths the future conflict will take, according to the older and more powerful logic of asabiyya rather than the bland rationality of the liberal mindset. Actors in a conflict — Alawites, Kurds, Druze, Christians and Sunni Arabs in the Syrian case — are for the most part mobilised into action against each other by social forces, whether ethnic, sectarian or economic, which override their individual moral preferences. Most often antagonists are manoeuvred into their allotted roles by the microdynamics of their local situation: either way, they are crushed between the tectonic plates of history and group feeling. When, as seems likely, Lebanon soon collapses, we will no doubt see this logic unfold once again, despite the contrary intentions of anyone involved.

The agency of the individual, like that of Alawite or Christian opponents of the Syrian regime in the war’s early days, is in a crisis simply swamped by the power of asabiyya. This is a worldview entirely alien, and fundamentally inexplicable to the liberal mindset, and yet, for Ibn Khaldun centuries ago, it is the iron law which governs human societies, “as God has commanded”. The great value of Ibn Khaldun, despite the deep engagement with Muslim moral philosophy within which Irwin aims to resituate him, is precisely his purely descriptive and analytical, even wearily amoral worldview.

Irwin may reject a modernist interpretation of Ibn Khaldun’s political thought, but if our rulers could adopt as detachedly sophisticated a perspective as that of the medieval Arab thinker, perhaps our managing of cultural difference could proceed in a more effective and humane way, ready to face human society as it actually exists. It would be better for the foreign peoples whose wars we embroil ourselves in, and in the long run, it would be better for us.

Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.